The gentle giants of this land we know not
Last 16th June was Kwita Izina day. Judging by the sizeable number of high-profile international figures regularly in attendance at this yearly event, there is no doubt that this Rwandan ceremony of naming baby gorillas has taken pride of place on the world tourism calendar.
This was long overdue. For long Rwandans saw the interest in these kingly primates as the ‘eccentric’ fascination of outsiders. But then again, for long many Rwandans had never appreciated any life.
It’s only with a shift in thinking that they are beginning to see life in its holy wholesomeness; to notice the value of gorillas and to see that every single life matters: human, animal, plant and all.
On a personal level, with this shift in thinking they might now begin to appreciate my story. As of now, they’ve been mocking it to a point where I was beginning to doubt my sanity!
Yet it’s a long story – in its telling and in its happening.
One time in 1996 I took some guests of the Rwandan government to the Volcanoes National Park to view gorillas. Like them, I knew nothing about gorillas, despite having shared a birthplace with them until I was forced into exile as a toddler.
As happens, a tracker gave us the ritualistic instructions before the trek and then we set off after him, with some trackers bringing up the rear.
Halfway into our trek, the lead tracker called a halt. Apparently, there was a lone silverback that was ‘seeking audience’. When we stopped, the silverback came close, stared at me and then hurriedly lumbered back to hide behind a bamboo bush. Within a minute, he emerged again, came close to fix me with his liquid brown gaze, and again quickly went to hide.
As he thus continued, everybody turned to look at me and my heart started to race. Was it because I was the only black visitor? Was he intending to harm me?
The trackers were puzzled, too. The lead tracker stated: “Sir, he knows you.” Me, how? This was my first encounter with a gorilla! But the tracker insisted that I should think back in case I could have met the gorilla before.
And when I thought hard, I blurted out: “Is he Guhonda?” When he nodded, tears welled up in my eyes and blinded me........
It must have been 1959. At almost nine then, I should easily have remembered but such is the little thought I’d given to the incidents. Even after the 1996 incident, I only used to joke about it for amusement’s sake.
It’s only recently that I’ve seriously tried to reconstruct those incidents of 55 years ago. Now I remember clearly how my mother took me with her whenever she went to work in the fields, weeding with her farm hands. While they were at work, I’d join the kids around as they played and together we’d penetrate into the bamboo forest of Mt. Muhabura.
There, inside the bamboo forest, we’d join other kids whose families lived inside, hunting and gathering (the then sorry existence of some compatriots). And from there, these kids would lead us further into the forest where we met gorilla kids and all together played hide-and-seek.
That is how I made acquaintance with Guhonda. I gave him the name because he was a chubby, hairy kid who particularly enjoyed teasing me, repeatedly hitting his chest (‘guhonda’ in Kinyarwanda) to challenge me. Of course it was difficult telling him from others. But he seemed older and bigger than the others, at age of some months. That’s all I knew until we went into exile.
Having read late Dian Fossey’s book, ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, now I can try to piece together Guhonda’s life. At maturity, he must have left his family and crossed into ‘Mgahinga National Park’, Uganda, in search of a ‘bride’. Unable to find one, he must have crossed back into Rwanda’s ‘Volcanoes National Park’, which no longer extended to Mt. Muhabura. Hard luck here too, and the fellow settled in Mt. Gahinga as a confirmed bachelor.
In Mt. Gahinga, he was only identified because he responded to the name Guhonda when a tracker was calling out to a namesake. Otherwise, he was a loner.
Again, if you’ve read Dian’s book, you know that even if gorillas are family creatures, loners exist of both sexes. And you know that gorillas’ memory is legendary.
And that’s how, 1996. Even then, I never thought much about the incident until Charles, that lead tracker, informed me of Guhonda’s death (RIP) the following year, aged about 39.
Yes, I needed Guhonda to show me how heartless I am.
These gentle giants, at 97%-human, how many lessons do they hold for their 100%-human fellow Rwandans?
When we were banishing, stealing from, maiming, raping, trying to eliminate, etc, one another, they were watching us as they were consolidating their families and crossing borders, physical and metaphorical, to attempt and create alliances.
While we are quick to extinguish the memory of one another, they are tenacious in cherishing every memory. Indeed, a scummy spectacle we must be making of ourselves.
A yearly naming and celebration of these moral titans are a good doze for our soul.
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